Great on paper, not always in practice
Nine Parchments needs to be played with friends. As a single-player endeavour it’s little other than a slog, but crowd a couple of extra people round the telly and that’s when the magic happens in this fantasy twin-stick shooter.
Rallying together to face tough encounters, you’ll lay down healing for allies, strategise on which enemies to focus your attacks on and apologise profusely when you shoot someone in the face with a lightning beam. Again.
Nine Parchments’ clearest inspiration by a mile is the Magicka series. Battles are a top-down frenzy of elemental rock-paper-scissors, firing off a multitude of different spells which can be combined into single beams. Whereas its forebear was a little rough-and-ready, however, the mechanics here are accessible and slick. Once you get the hang of running with one analogue stick whilst aiming spells in opposite directions with the other – an ability which took me an embarrassing amount of time to discover – you’ll feel like an all-powerful wizard.
Despite this, however, battles can become frustrating as the game progresses, even with friends by your side. When a foe has natural resistance to one element, is overlaid with magic armour and two bonus resistances whilst sat in a force field of an extra resistance, you start to run out of options. Make some poor choices of spells to unlock and you’ll be stuck in a bind.
This approach to ramping up the difficulty curve – making it progressively harder to actually cause damage to enemies – feels like more of a chore than a challenge. Some foes are shielded, only taking damage from behind. The obvious strategy is to surround the enemy from opposite sides, but on multiple occasions our party was scuppered by the overly cramped battlefields and unhelpful camera. We’d find ourselves walking off-screen and even respawning elsewhere when trying to pull this off.
Nine Parchments provides you with a lot of options for playing cooperatively on the Switch, but some are unfortunately better than others. And by that I mean that anything other than playing locally in docked mode is a bad move.
Whilst the game runs smoothly enough in portable mode, the tiny screen is less than conducive to working out what the hell is going on. Surprisingly, you can play with a single Joy-Con each – a godsend, if it wasn’t for the fact that using a miniature pad with only a few buttons necessitates a baffling control scheme of combining multiple buttons at once to pull off actions. It’s a convenient option, but the compromise here borders on deal-breaking.
Online play is also a welcome inclusion in theory, but the loss of communication kills any hopes of strategy. From a purely subjective point of view it also loses a certain something when you don’t have friends to share your rage with in person. More crucially, due to excruciatingly poor, incomprehensible design, joining someone else’s game will also wipe your own save game. Sure, you’ll keep character progression, but you’ll have to start all over again from the first level the next time you play by yourself.
One area in which Nine Parchments absolutely excels is its visual production values. Levels are staggeringly beautiful, packed with shimmering waterfalls and streams, lush vegetation and stalactite-filled caves. Everywhere you look there’s a picturesque vista begging you to stop for a moment and take it all in.
Not only is it impressive how good the game looks on the Switch, the framerate is near-bulletproof. It was essential that Frozenbyte got this right, considering how hectic the action is, and they nailed it. With voice-acted characters and a charming fantasy soundtrack, it’s a full package, presentation-wise.
It’s a shame that I can’t recommend Nine Parchments as readily as I want to. Too many frustrating design decisions hamper an otherwise solid co-op adventure. With linear level structure, few variations in enemy type, and collectibles limited to hats, staffs and trivial bonus EXP, there’s also not a lot to keep you captivated throughout its reasonably-sized campaign. Nine Parchments may entertain you and your friends for a spell, but fails to enchant long-term.